By Ikechukwu Amaechi
Seven years after Nigeria’s fratricidal war, the bucolic Obohia community in Ahiazu-Mbaise local government area, Imo State, came alive, rediscovering its soul, literally, with education as the tonic.
What used to be Eastern Nigeria had been devastated by the 30-month civil war. But the people were not broken. Out of the ruins sprang up community secondary schools. Secondary Technical School Obohia (SETESCO) was one of them. It remains a study in communal effort.
Established in 1977, the school admitted students from all the nooks and crannies of old Imo State. The government only gave the approval, there was no financial support.
But the people were happy that they got government’s permission to build a school. Had the money come with the approval, they would have been happier for it.
But the fact that it didn’t was not going to be an obstacle to the realisation of their dream. They gave the project their all – donated hectares of land, devoted time and were selfless with their financial resources.
Those who had no money offered their talents; bricklayers, carpenters, other artisans. There was no compulsion. It was voluntarism at its best. The women cooked food for their husbands who worked tirelessly on the project.
The land was Ohia Mbara, a virgin land. The trees were big and needed to be uprooted. There were neither caterpillars nor bulldozers. The work was done manually. It was sheer hard labour.
But the people were determined to have a school and no sacrifice was considered too much. And about a year after the approval was granted, there was indeed a school.
By the time the first set of students – boys and girls – arrived in September 1977, some buildings had sprung up, but there was still work to be done.
Some bushes still needed to be cleared and there were trees yet to be uprooted. The task fell on the students. Consequently, the most common punishment was the uprooting of trees. In a bid to ensure that the school continued to develop its infrastructure, one of the principals became very creative, introducing an unusual kind of punishment for truancy. Rather than flogging any student caught scaling the school fence, the punishment was a bag of cement.
There was no boarding house, yet many of the students came from far-flung places. The school authorities had no choice but to improvise. The community, once again, rose to the occasion, providing a classroom block of the primary school, Group School Amaiyi Obohia, as an emergency hostel.
The environment was harsh. The students would go to the local stream to fetch water for their domestic chores everyday. But the villagers helped in making sure they settled in well. The students were so integrated into the community that some of them even competed with the locals during the annual wrestling contests at the Nkwo Obohia market.
But most of the older students had a hitch. Imo State government had an age cap of 14 years for fresh students, a policy Dr. Agom Eze, Commissioner for Education and Information, was prepared to follow through.
The pioneer principal, Mr. Edward Amadi, turned back some of the students who were in their 20s until the policy, which didn’t make sense in the first place considering that these were boys and girls whose education was disrupted by the civil war, was rescinded. In fact, some of them were actually recruited into the “Boys Company” of the Biafran Army.
It was in this same school that I gained admission for my secondary education in 1978. We were the second set of students to be admitted.
SETESCO had little or no paraphernalia of a secondary school. There was neither a library nor science laboratory. The school had no generator and there was no public power supply in the community. There was no borehole. Students had to go to the stream to fetch water.
Within the first five years, the school had three principals – Mr. Amadi, Mr. O.U Duru and Mr. Vincent Akubueze. They were all father-figures who cared for the students as they would for their own biological children. Every morning at the assembly ground, Mr. Amadi would call out the names of every student of the 1977 set to ensure that they were all accounted for. Such was the devotion to duty and sense of responsibility.
With the exception of the principal, none of the pioneer teachers had a Nigerian Certificate in Education (NCE), not to talk of university degree. In fact, half of them were drafted from primary schools with certificates from teachers training colleges. I still don’t know the criteria for the elevation, but what was evident was that they didn’t have the prerequisite qualifications for their new jobs.
The other half were “auxiliary teachers,” mostly young men and women who had just left secondary school with good grades in their WAEC results. Many left few years later in pursuit of the Golden Fleece in various institutions of higher learning.
Some of these dire situations changed for the better over the years, when the school had science laboratory and more qualified teachers came on board with some of those drafted from primary schools going back to their former stations.
But one thing was glaring. Despite their handicaps, the pioneer teachers were remarkably dedicated and passionate, the success of their students being the ultimate motivation.
Their sacrifice of love, commitment and insatiable appetite to impact knowledge rubbed off positively on the students. The quest for knowledge and excellence was extraordinary. There was competition in burning the axiomatic midnight candle. The distractions were few and negligible.
The result was phenomenal. Despite the humble beginnings, many of the students excelled in academics, passing their West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE) in good grades, and gaining admission into the universities. Today, many SETESCO alumni are high-flying professionals proving their mettle in plum jobs locally and internationally. Those that opted for business are also shining.
But just like the story of our country Nigeria, sadly, 41 years after, as it nears its golden jubilee, the school has become seedy.
Though the few teachers there today are better qualified, they are not enough and the quality of education is at an all-time low. Most senior secondary school students can hardly read and write. They have no role models, little or no aspirations and therefore, no motivation to study hard and excel. There is no library. The science laboratory is no more. The buildings have become so dilapidated that you wonder how any kind of teaching and learning could go on in such a squalid environment. And there is acute dearth of science teachers.
When we left SETESCO 35 years ago, there was no GSM. Everyone simply disappeared into the thin air, each to his own world.
Almost four decades later, the consensus is that if there will be any redemption for the school, it must come from the old students through a vibrant alumni association. But the problem was, where are they? How can they be located?
Last month, technology came to the rescue. A simple WhatSapp Forum – SETESCO Old Students Association – did the magic. Suddenly the internet is on fire, literally.
Old students of the school have signed on. Surprisingly, almost a third of the population live in the Diaspora – particularly Europe and America. The enthusiasm is electric. The bonding that has taken place in only one month is infectious. It is as if we never separated.
A meeting tagged “Consequential Homecoming” has been fixed for December 31 at the school premises. Emergency tickets are being bought by those in the Diaspora who want to be physically present for the momentous reunion.
And there is a three-pronged agenda – to set up an alumni association, raise funds for the urgent task of rebuilding the school’s grossly dilapidated infrastructure, and mentoring the students by visiting and talking to them in their classrooms.
There is a fervent desire to give back to the school that gave most of us a break in life. All of us talk about our humble beginnings at the school with nostalgia. The feeling is indescribable.
Even in the absence of government that has utterly failed in its social responsibilities, after many years of neglect and decay, Secondary Technical School Obohia will rise and shine again as the old students rally for the redemption of the glory of their alma mater.
And by the way, SETESCO’s Motto is: To Rise and Shine.
- Amaechi, MD/E-in-C of TheNiche newspaper, an alumnus of SETESCO, wrote in from Lagos